"The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty" .
-Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral
. Annie Dillard wrote that pews should come with seat belts, for a true experience of the holy will blow your socks off. Sometimes a true revelation doesn't simply show you something new: it also requires something of you, Most of all, perhaps it will require you to give up old ways of seeing and being in the world that are easily trod and well worn and predictable. A real revelation will demand that you enter a world pregnant with mystery and paradox, in a state of wonder. A real revelation might require you to demand more of yourself, but it will also open your hearts to be more compassionate to others. A revelation is a grace, no doubt about it- but it is a costly grace.
I imagine Les Miserables will sweep many an award for its cinematic grandeur, costume splendor, heart rending performances by Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, and its lush score. But what I was most struck by is how Victor Hugo's story is such a priceless sermon on the difference between true faith and false faith.
Both Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean invoke the name of God for their actions and both reference scripture. Both men encounter a situation where they expect judgment and meet mercy. In the face of his revelation of grace, Jean Valjean surrenders to what is asked of him by such an action: he leaves his old identity and begins a new life, living from a new center of gratitude and compassion. Javert faces the same call, but he is so embedded in his ways of seeing the world in black and white, damned and saved, right and wrong, that he cannot recognize supreme goodness when it is before him. When he finally realizes that the world is far more complex than he ever imagined, he cannot tolerate it. He would rather die than give up his certainty.
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God", says the author of Hebrews. The author knew well that doing so will unknit and remake you, and part of that journey will involve becoming less certain of most things. I take comfort that Socrates, too, knew this as well. When told that he was the wisest man in the world, he is reputed to have said that the one thing he knew was that he didn't know anything.
As I listened to the muffled ( and not so muffled) sounds of tears around me in the darkened movie theater, I thought how Victor Hugo's story is really the version of the gospel so many people long and need to hear: That God is about mercy, not judgment. Compassion, not condemnation. That it is possible to change and find a life of purpose, love and meaning even if you've been enslaved for twenty years. That the most important question is, can you stay open enough to embrace goodness when it appears before you? And are you able to let go of your old ideas in order to step into the larger vision of life and love that you are called to?
So today, I raise a toast: to not knowing. To not putting a period where God has placed a comma. To the mystery. To wonder. To the capacity to turn around, start anew and see the world with new eyes- eyes that can behold and embrace beauty and goodness whenever they appear before us. And to Les Miserables, which may well be the best sermon on costly grace and true faith that many of us will ever see. Be sure to bring a box of kleenex when you go. One of the things it will cost you is your tears.
By Li- Young Lee
(1957 - )
In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night's darling?
Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.
Song of the Angels by William Adolphe Bouguereau
I could love a Christmas without a sumptuous feast, the twinkling lights or a pile of presents topped with a glittering tree. But Christmas can only really happen for me if I hear the divine harmony. This week, I heard the angels singing again and again. , and like Dante, I felt transported to higher and higher realms of glory. First, chanting psalms with pilgrims at the Benedictine retreat- then hearing my dear friend Robin O'Brien serenade labyrinth walkers with Hildegard of Bingen and her own beautiful rendition of the Song of Songs. Saturday saw the extraordinary performance of Handel's Messiah by the American Bach Soloists in Grace Cathedral: a model of vocal and instrumental purity and unbridled joy in one of the most magnificent sites in the Bay Area. But the highest heaven came in the exquisite a capella concert given by Chanticleer at St Ignatius Church in San Francisco on Sunday evening. In the darkened sanctuary, the low bass drone brought chills to my spine as far off a high, clear voice of incandescent innocence began to chantVeni Veni Emmanuel. . Gradually a tiny candle appeared as the procession of twelve men in tuxedos with beaming faces came to offer their hearts and souls in song. It was the first of many moments that evening that brought a lump to my throat.
The high point of the concert was discovering the antiphons of Arvo Part. This Estonian has long been my favorite living composer, and I often use his music as a mirror for teaching TS Eliot's last masterwork, the Four Quartets. After years of studying composition in the line of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Part reached a dead end. Like Beethoven, he exiled himself to a several year period of silence and a creative moratorium before being reborn as a creative artist. While Beethoven was plunged against his will into the throes of his deafness. Part went to an Orthodox monastery in the remote woods of Estonia where he sunk into the slow rhythms of chanting and studied 14th century polyphony. When he began to compose again after a few years, it was with a new voice: staggeringly stark and beautiful which truly mirrors TS Eliot's lines in "Little Gidding:- " complete simplicity costing not less than everything",
Part's Morgenstorm, written in celebration of Advent, was a revelation. As one of the Seven Magnificent Antiphons, it is intended to be chanted before and after the Magnificat on December 21, the Winter Solstice. .The ancient text is such a beautiful, eternal plea:
O Radiant dawn
splendor of eternal light,
sun of justice,
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
Part has:one half of the chorus singing in a major key, the other in a minor key- perfectly poised between light and dark, pain and delight. The music is spare, aching, heart rending: music to bring you to your knees as you hold one hand full of grief and the other full of hope, evoking the eternal cycle of life and death. It is truly the song of angels: not sticky sweet and sentimental, but music that points to a bigger vision and a deeper truth that just might change you. Jungians and alchemists teach that the journey into the soul requires us to be ability to endure profound tension while Dante writes that the journey to Paradise requires the ability to bear greater and greater beauty. Music like Bach and Arvo Part help us to do this in a very physical, concrete way . In experiencing the radical pain of intense dissonance, and then discovering the unbelievable sweetness of hearing the clashing harmonies dissolve and blossom into the most open and expansive and liberating resolution, it is a practice of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "costly grace". an embodiment of what Eliot called "echoed ecstasy/not lost, but requiring". It is the Nativity sculpted in sound: discovering the holy , the radiant and the wondrous in the simplest of places surrounded by darkness and suffering. Divine harmony- what Christmas is all about .
I was reflecting-given the Advent readings for the week- on the theme of "Hurry, live the life you need NOW! Don't wait!" And I realize that I have been so blessed to actually do that this year. I have deepened my relationships with both my mother and my daughter, had a time of profound awakening connection with my beloved stepfather as he battled a life threatening illness, spent time tromping through the hills and sharing over a cup of tea with my beloved friends . I have lectured on the great passions of my life (Mary Magdalene, the Sibyls, muses, mystics, Medieval art and music, Dante, Beethoven, Greek myth) in three countries, initiated young adults into the spiritual world at sacred sites, taught children to connect to their hearts at the piano . I've been to more art museums than I can count, and heard gorgeous music in concert halls and cathedrals. I've had profound conversations with people who I have admired for years (Roger Housden, River Malcolm and Christine Downing), and now I am blessed to consider my friends. I've met two of the most celebrated composers of our age (Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie) and conversed with them one on one. I have paraglided over the Swiss Alps and danced in an Italian castle with a renowned filmmaker and sung Gregorian chant to the Black Madonna while locked in Chartres Cathedral all by myself.
It has been a glorious year, and if it was the last year in my life, I would think, "What a way to go!". If you were to go back in time and tell me five years ago what I would have experienced this year, I am not sure I could have believed you. It has been beyond my wildest dreams.
It has also been a time of profound letting go- of sending my cherished child off to college at UCLA, of surrendering a house, a dog, a cat, a career, a twenty four year marriage and any hope of certainty of what the future might hold. There have been moments of fear, grief, sorrow, doubt and maybe even sheer terror. It has been a year of jumping off of mountains, hoping I will fly. And it has been a year of learning that I can, because something wiser and more experienced than I am is holding and guiding me.
I think that is one of the most important lessons of Advent: be willing to let go of even the beautiful things that have nourished you in the past but which no longer bring vitality . Be willing to walk into the mystery and embrace the emptiness. Be willing to take that leap of faith, to jump off the mountains -of Switzerland, or of your old identity. Because what you will find will be beyond your wildest dreams.
Today is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a day which celebrates the Virgin Mary's appearance in the 16th century to a Mexican peasant. The religious authorities would not believe Juan Diego, so he was asked to furnish proof of her appearance. He went back to the site and found Spanish roses blooming in December. He gathered them in his cloak and brought them to the skeptical priest. The image which you see is the image of her face which was imprinted on his cloak, a dark skinned woman with a blue veil bedecked with gold stars. Today is a day that celebrates mothering love, nurturing, mercy and acceptance. For all of us- for the least of us.
Today is also 12-12-12, a day that so many people in the world are afraid of, a day that some prophets have tied themselves up about, thinking it the end of the world (though most seem sure it is on 12-21, according to the NY Times) . I read that both American Southerners and Russians are stockpiling provisions, anticipating the Apocalypse.
Other in the New Age movement have said that today is a portal, a doorway to a higher plane of consciousness, and that by connecting to what is deepest, truest, most real and beautiful in us today, we can leave behind what does not serve us any longer.
So this is my prayer for all of us today:
Like Juan Diego, may we find our way to carry the beautiful and unexpected flowers of our life, and hold them fast amid the skeptical and mocking voices that surround us
Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, may we be merciful and tender to the least wanted, and enfold those rejected parts of our being with a gentle gaze, in a cloak lit with the light of compassionate illumination
Like the Mayan and New Age prophecies, may what is necessary die within us so that we may find a deeper, truer, more integrated way of life
And most of all, in the words of the great poet and soul John O'Donahue:
May our minds come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites us to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May we have the courage today
To live the life that we would love,
To postpone our dream no longer
But do at last what we came here for
And waste our hearts on fear no more.
The truth is that there have been rumors of an impending apocalypse since the beginning of time. But the truth is also that today will be the end of the world for someone. For thousands of people, actually. For people hit by a drunk driver, and for those far off who are dying of hunger and for those dear souls who lose their battles with cancer. It will be the end of the world for someone like John O'Donahue, who died peacefully in his sleep at the all too young age of 53. I am so glad he didn't postpone his dreams, but instead lived a rich and full and meaningful and truly authentic life- even with all its paradoxes. May we all do the same.
Today, I will finish the prayer books for the Benedictine retreat I will be leading over the weekend, read yet another book on Mary Magdalene in preparation for my lecture tomorrow, go for an hour long hike in the hills, maybe even walk down to Rochioli Vineyards and buy a bottle of wine to drink by candlelight this evening. I will practice the Bach c minor fantasy on the piano, write a few more pages of my dissertation, do yoga and lead a labyrinth walk after dinner. If it is the last day of my life, it will be a good one. May it blessed for you as well.
I am not a big fan of Christmas. I have a sleigh full of sad memories from the holidays of years past. I confess I do not like Santa Claus or fruitcake, and I loathe Jingle Bells and the rampant commercialism of a season that is now dedicated to running up credit card bills buying things we don't need and may not even want. I have fantasized about going somewhere far off in the east, like a small village in Bali or Thailand, where I could experience the real meaning of Christmas: finding beauty and holiness in the humblest of places.
But Advent is a season I love. The four weeks leading up to my least favorite holiday are something profoundly deep, and true and meaningful for me. It is a season about waiting, longing and mystery- and surrendering to finding God where you least expect it.
So it is fitting that my blog will begin during Advent, the time when the Christian calendar starts anew, as I search to enlarge my own capacity for beholding beauty- which is what Dante tells us Heaven is all about. The themes for the church readings for the season are as follows- and good advice for contemplation, no matter what your religion:
Don't fall asleep to your life!
Straighten your path!
Wait, watch and listen!
And ponder the mystery in your heart.
In the days to come, I will be sharing some of my favorite poems that speak to these eternal themes.
It is "a mete and right thing so to do" to begin with TS Eliot. This is from The Four Quartets, the poem that saved my life as a teenager:
I said to my soul, be still
And wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
And wait without love,
For love would be love for the wrong thing.
There is yet faith,
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
And wait without thought,
For you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be the light
And the stillness, the dancing.